Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Parting Glass

Georges de la Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, 1640
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.

— Voltaire

Curatio funeris, conditio sepulturae, pompa exsequiarum, magis sunt vivorum solatia, quam subsidia mortuorum.

— St. Augustine, Civitas Dei 1

* * *
Michel de Montaigne writes of the duty we owe to princes:2
We owe subjection and obedience equally to all kings, for that concerns their office; but we do not owe esteem, any more than affection, except to their virtue. Let us make this concession to the political order: to suffer them patiently if they are unworthy, to conceal their vices, to abet them by commending their indifferent actions if their authority needs our support. But, our dealings over, it is not right to deny to justice and to our liberty the expression of our true feelings, and especially to deny good subjects the glory of having reverently and faithfully served a master whose imperfections were so well known to them, and thus to deprive posterity of such a useful example. And those who out of respect for some private obligation unjustly espouse the memory of a blameworthy prince, do private justice at the expense of public justice.
One could say the same about parents, with minor modifications. Part of growing up is becoming aware that one’s parents are human beings, with all the flaws attendant thereto, not the omnipotent and omniscient gods of our infancy. This, speaking from my personal experience, can be quite a blow, especially if the revelation is received early enough in one’s life.

My father was a brilliant engineer, troubled by his blue collar origins. He struggled to make his way through life with, as he put it, one foot in the world he came from and one foot in the present. His family did little to help him. My mother was brilliant, too, in her own way, and struggled with different demons incubated in the privileged upbringing of her family. Their marriage early produced me, too early really for a man and woman not far removed from childhood themselves. It did not last long. I was raised an only child of divorced parents who struggled separately to be parents, and who only partially succeeded. The timeline and details do not matter here—for my life is not a commonwealth I share with others to whom I owe a duty of honesty, outside my immediate family—but suffice it to say I became estranged from both my parents. Age and distance, sadly, did not improve our relationships.

My father died many years ago, succumbing finally to the demons he never fully escaped. My mother died within the past two weeks. I have not been overwhelmed with grief, for estrangement acts as a kind of grieving itself, sapping the heart of love, delight, and admiration in slow anticipation of the final separation of death. I am sad she is gone, of course, because she was my mother. You cannot help but love your mother, no matter how worthy you think she may have been as one.

* * *
They say as you grow older you become your parents. I am no spring chicken, but I have not seen this yet. Of course I have some of their flaws (or at least those flaws I am aware of) in addition to my own, but I have spent a great deal of effort trying to become a better man and father in reaction to the mistakes I saw my parents make. Let us say, then, that one grows in reaction to one’s parents, good or bad. My efforts, good or ill, will be judged in time by my own children.

In the meantime, I have made peace with my parents in my heart. If nothing else, they meant well, and they tried to do what they thought was right. We can ask little more, even of ourselves.

I am not here to render public justice. And as for private justice, there is only love.
But since it has so ordered been
A time to rise and a time to fall
Fill to me a parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.
So good night and joy be with you all.

— Traditional, The Parting Glass

Goodnight, Mom and Dad. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

1 “The arranging of funerals, the conditions of burials, the pomp of obsequies, are rather a consolation for the living than any help to the dead.” (Trans. Michel de Montaigne, “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us.”)
2 “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us," The Complete Works, Trans. Donald M. Frame. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 10.

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